“The world is nothing but a moment.”
I think that I had almost completely forgotten how to relax. I can vaguely remember times in college when I seemingly had time to play video games and basketball all day long, when as I remember it I was neither ambitious nor productive, and when I was presumably more laid back and less high strung than I am now.
These days, I live a very regimented life. Some of that, I suppose, is a hazard of my career. We teachers pee when a bell signals to us that we are allowed, like some cruel Pavlovian form of torture. Though it isn’t just the job that does it to me, but also my personality. I have jested that it’s the German side of my family, but in truth I think it’s just my personality. I’m wound tight, I thrive on order and organization, and at the age of forty I’m starting to feel a bit as if I’m running out of time. It is for reasons like these, I suspect, that my alarm goes off at 5am each day, and that I keep a daily diary that looks more like a compartmentalized “to-do” list, in which I record everything from my daily gratitude journal to how many minutes and seconds I worked my core, how many miles I ran and how fast, how many reps I lifted, how many miles I rode the stationary bike, how many wines I reviewed, how many calories I consumed and how many of those were protein, how many hours I devoted to writing and what I wrote about, and more. Obsessive? You don’t know the half of it, though if what you feel upon reading this is pity for my wife, well, that isn’t entirely unwarranted.
And yet I wrote “had” didn’t I? I had almost completely forgotten how to relax, until I found myself on an island in the Caribbean with my wife and two good friends at an all-inclusive resort. For the first day, I hated it. Where was the structure? Why weren’t we going out and learning about Dominican culture? Was I really supposed to just sit there on the beach and do nothing all day? But then I started to take it all in. The Atlantic was stunningly beautiful. The sand beneath my feet exfoliated them while the tide lapped at my ankles. Anytime I asked, someone would decapitate a coconut and hand it to me to drink the water out of. The seafood was amazing. I had no schedule, no routines. Everything was up in the air, up to Sonja and I. Toward the end of our too-short stay, I was forgetting to write in my daily diary. Toward the end, I was already thinking about how to return. Toward the end, I think I might have finally figured out how to relax.
I did get some running in there in Punta Cana as well. The first day, I ran four easy miles. The second, I went after my hill workout like a man on a mission. For mile one, I set a ten-minute pace, then ticked the incline on the treadmill up .5 every minute, until at the end of a mile I was at a 5.0 incline. Then I ticked it back down in the same increments, ever so gradually, until I was at .5 after two miles. I increased the speed slightly. Mile three: back up, mile four: back down. I increased the speed a bit more, to a 9:40 mile, still a very comfortable pace for me. Mile five I went up only to 3.0, then back down again, and mile six I ran as a recovery at an incline of 1.0, finishing at a 9:00 pace. Then I went for a bike ride and did an abs class with Sonja and our friends before heading back to the beach for the rest of the day. The third day, four easy miles was all the plan called for, and I was glad for the break. I found that walking on the beach was both therapeutic and a serious calf workout. My legs ached terrifically by the end of the trip, but in such a way that I wished the feeling would never disappear.
I spent a lot of time on the resort questioning whether or not the resort itself was good or not. On the one hand, it seemed completely excessive and over the top, all of the food, the drinks, the staff, the shows, the…everything. The everything. On the other, it clearly employed hundreds of people, possible thousands even. I would casually interrogate some of them about their jobs, and the response was always the same. They were glad for the work. Their lodging was nice and the food was good. We made it a point to tip well, and we made it a point to enjoy the wonderful experience that so many people worked so hard in order to provide.
Temps in the high 40’s were a bit of a shock to the system after spending the previous four nights on a tropical island. Our flight got in late Wednesday night, and I didn’t get to sleep until nearly midnight. Sonja suggested I turn off my alarm and sleep in. I embraced the idea in theory but in practice failed to actually do so. At 6:30AM, my alarm woke me up and, knowing I couldn’t go back to sleep easily, I got up, got dressed, and ran nine miles, eight of them at “race pace” as prescribed by my training plan. I felt strong for the most part, though I struggled mightily to maintain my desired 8:55 pace, and wound up averaging more like 8:36. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m selling myself short with a sub-four-hour marathon goal, but for someone whose PR is in the high four-twenties, anything below four feels pretty darn ambitious.
An email came in from a friend at the Refugee Empowerment Center. It read:
I wanted to reach out with some updates. We just have a few Afghan families left to do home set ups for. I don’t have a date yet on when they will need home set up yet as they are large families (10-12) and our housing team is still securing housing for them. If one of these families would work for your group, without a definitely date, let me know.
I had been hoping for this, though the families are huge and the turnaround tight. I spent my free moments the next few days creating a handout for students to let them know when we’d be setting up the house, what supplies we needed, and other ways that they could help. Friday was a rest day from running, and also the second day of the March Madness tournament, so I took the kids to B-dubs, Buffalo Wild Wings, to watch basketball and eat wings. In a past life, I would have lived in sports bars for most of the tournament, but at present I was glad just to get a few hours in. I’ve bribed the kids to watch basketball by having them fill out brackets and rewarding correct picks with chocolate, which increases in size and quantity with each round. They’re really into it.
On the way out the door with my family, a message came through on Facebook Messenger. It was a politician from Poland whom I had worked with when he was stationed in the United States. We visited Auschwitz together many years ago, and when I took students to Washington D.C. he made sure they were received at the Polish Embassy. I like this guy a lot. The gist of his message is encapsulated in this excerpt from it:
“…I find it strange that a person devoted (as I remember you) to human rights issues is communicating through his FB profile a life of fun and luxury…”
As I’ve aged and matured, I’ve come to realize that if your posture is defensive, you aren’t listening, and if you aren’t listening, you aren’t learning anything. Maybe some people don’t care whether they’re learning anything or not, but I have always valued the acquisition of knowledge above almost all other things, and I try not to miss a chance to learn something about myself when the opportunity arises (which is fairly often). I pondered his message for a while. I know how to argue the point, but his gift to me was to let me know how I was being perceived, at least by him, and most likely not exclusively by him.
I’m aware that there is suffering in the world. I suspect that if you’re living in Poland then what is happening in Ukraine feels pretty acute. Hell, it’s got my attention from halfway around the globe, and I think most Americans are very interested in what’s going on. That being said, what about Afghanistan? What about the rest of the world? What about the tremendous injustices that take place daily in my own country? If I’m not allowed to take a vacation with my wife or go to Disneyland with my kids until we’ve achieved world peace, well, I may not be married much longer and I surely won’t be much of a dad. I believe that balance is important.
In my most recent book, which is about teaching about the Holocaust, I included an entire chapter on the idea of balance, that being a Holocaust educator or a human rights educator or whatever you fancy yourself to be can be a dangerous and lonely road, and that we need to have hobbies, to have lives outside of being do-gooders and philanthropists. I realize there are those who disagree, and they’re welcome to their opinions, of course. As for me, however, I know that if I don’t take some time for me and allow myself to recharge, well then there won’t be much of me to give to anyone else for very much longer. Reading over my notes on the start of this week, I remain pleased that I seem to have rediscovered the art of doing nothing, if only for a few short days. I hope to return soon to the beaches of the Dominican Republic, or perhaps beaches elsewhere, though I do believe it is valuable for me to know that there are those who bristle at the life of fun and luxury I sometimes allow myself to live.
Saturday, the Peloton app pinged me to notify me that my 89-week streak of using the bike would end if I didn’t hop on, so I did a quick ten-minute spin through the South of France (there’s that life of fun and luxury again) before heading out for an easy five-mile run. That afternoon, on the way to my in-laws for dinner, we stopped at Shahen Afghan Restaurant. I went in and a young man, a junior in high school (though not at the one I teach at) was working the counter. I explained almost apologetically that I was hoping to get some food to share with students for the Afghan New Year and his face lit up. “Are they Afghan?” he asked. “No,” I replied, “But we’ve been studying Afghanistan in class.” He seemed pleased by this. “Is that the Blue Mosque?” I asked, gesturing at a framed picture to his right, my left, very near the cash register. “Yes,” he said. “It’s amazing, though I’ve only been there once.”
The young man helped me to select dishes he thought my students would enjoy, and the two men having a late lunch in the corner approved heartily of our choice of shor nakhud and kabuli pulao. By the time we’d put the order together, the young man’s father had agreed to bring the food to my school last hour, and the young man had promised to email me some music to play while we ate. I left excited to note the Afghan New Year with my students on Monday.
Sunday I went for my long run, fourteen miles. I told myself just to keep it under a ten-minute pace and I ended up averaging in the high nine-thirties, my pace steady, ranging between 9:19 and 9:51. The weather was amazing, with light breezes and abundant sunlight, the temps climbing from the mid-forties to the high-fifties as I ran for over two hours. I passed walkers, ran alongside other runners, got passed by cyclists, and ran past more softball games than I could count. There were dog-walkers, roller-bladers, and every other sort of pedestrian I could imagine. Everyone, it seemed, was outside and enjoying the good weather after their own fashion.
That was what was on my mind, as I finished my run and readied myself for the rest of my day, as well as for the week ahead. Yes, I had spent the first part of the week on a beach on an island in the Caribbean, relaxing. And in a not so dissimilar fashion, I was relaxing here at home, perhaps without the beach, but nevertheless enjoying the sunshine and my ability to exercise. We all need relaxation and leisure in our lives. I feel terribly for those—in Afghanistan certainly, also in Ukraine, and also right here at home in the states, who are not capable of relaxing. I realize that for myself, it was a choice, a series of bad habits I hope to be starting to break, whereas for many others it is not. How can one reasonably hope to relax when the world around them is unstable and violent? Worse still, what happens if they cannot? I hope that this week and next, my students and I will be able to create a welcoming, relaxing environment for the two families who are relocating to our home town. I know how much it is likely to mean to them.